There is nothing that parents love more in this world than their children. Parents everywhere want our children to grow up safe, healthy, and happy. We want them to have a great education and to be able to chase their dreams. We worry about the schools they attend and the quality of instruction they are receiving. My husband and I plan to become parents ourselves one day, so I’ve been thinking a lot about these things and how the parents served by the Aga Khan Foundation must worry for their children.

I was in Kenya recently to see firsthand the work of AKF and the Aga Khan Development Network, where I had the opportunity to witness our multi-input development approach in action. I was so moved by what I saw in the lives of communities there.

From Early Childhood in Hard Places…

I started the trip in Nairobi visiting a daycare school in a slum called Baba Dogo. Homes in the neighborhood were constructed of simple materials including corrugated metal and dirt floors. Head teacher Elizabeth welcomed us into her school. Despite the condition of the neighborhood, it lifted my spirits to see the walls of the school were covered in beautiful, bright colors: with children’s art, alphabets, numbers, fruits and vegetables, and cartoon characters.

Elizabeth’s smile beamed and she quickly started to express her gratitude to AKF for all it has done for her school.

ECD in Baba Dogo, Kenya

AKF has been working with this daycare and others like it in Baba Dogo and other parts of Kenya to enhance the quality of early learning in the country. Elizabeth said that she was most grateful for training provided by AKF on topics like the science of early childhood development, improving the classroom experience and play-based learning, and teaching parents to work and play with their children at home.

Knowing how interconnected early childhood development, early learning, and good health are in the early years, Elizabeth was also grateful that AKF had helped link parents and children to healthcare services in the neighborhood. A community health volunteer assigned to her school, and trained through an AKF-funded program, helped teach parents about maternal and child health and nutrition and even helped Elizabeth take sick children to the local health clinic if the teachers could not leave the school.

Elizabeth described how the program helped families get a better handle on nutrition. Before, parents would give their infant children coffee and tea and meals often consisted only of rice. But parents were learning to prepare more nutritious meals including whole grains and lentils that would fuel their children’s mental and physical development.

Elizabeth also shared an example of when she identified a child in one of her classes who was autistic. She said she never would have known of special needs and the importance of seeking professional care for such children had she not been trained by AKF.

Elizabeth started her school with 3 children in 2013 because she was inspired to do something to help her community. She said to me that the children must be “our priority number 1.” She now runs a school of over 100 children, each of whom is receiving quality early childhood education and access to healthcare in a slum in Nairobi. Elizabeth is now also a leader in a forum of daycare schools in the area that AKF has convened and she shares best practices with other head teachers to improve the early development of children in her own and neighboring communities.

To a Top-Quality Education

Visiting the daycare in Baba Dogo and other early childhood programs of the Foundation, I witnessed the remarkable investment that AKDN makes in children’s early years. Then I wondered what would come next for these kids.

I got a glimpse of what the future promised for some when we visited Mombasa and the Aga Khan Academy, a top-quality school offering primary and secondary International Baccalaureate (IB) education.

This school was many miles from Baba Dogo, but the difference was much greater than just physical distance. When I walked onto campus, it felt like an alternate reality! The Academy is a state-of-the-art, technologically advanced, and beautifully built environment for learning.

The Academy’s students learn the IB curriculum that sparks intellectual curiosity and produces globally minded world citizens. The school attracts top minds from across Kenya and beyond. Several have come from early learning programs supported by AKF. Besides nurturing the growth of their own students, the Academies also have a mandate to be hubs for improving the quality of education in surrounding public schools. The Academy in Mombasa engages with Kenyan public schools and hosts teacher trainings that provide support and resources to teachers in under-resourced settings.

Widening Opportunities

I was particularly impressed in talking with one Academy graduate named Khatija. One of several scholarship recipients, she struck me as intelligent, confident, and ambitious. Her family could not have afforded to send her to the school on their own. She reminded me that she was one of the lucky ones, and that there were many more bright children who deserved the type of good education she gained at the Academy.

I left the Academy that afternoon hopeful because the Aga Khan schools in Kenya are imparting a quality education, stimulating the minds of Kenya’s future leaders.

At AKF, we are enthusiastic that our multi-faceted approach to development—what we call “multi-input area development”—tackles many underlying issues in economic and social development simultaneously. The causes of poverty are complex and our experience shows that the solutions must be multi-faceted to foster long-term change.

My trip to Kenya made vivid for me just how that multi-input approach actually works. Children everywhere need safe and nurturing spaces to live, play and learn. They need their families to understand how to nourish them, and access to quality healthcare. They need early learning that stimulates their growth and they need foundational education that challenges them and makes them curious about the world.

It saddens me to realize that many children in Kenya do not have these things. But I take heart in knowing that we have so many supporters who care. You are the force behind AKF and the AKDN’s work in Kenya and other countries to create change and to build an environment that will enable the coming generation to thrive.

Karim Merchant is Director of Development and Volunteer Engagement for Aga Khan Foundation USA.